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Quality vs. Quantity

Twenty Minutes with Slow Church’s Fathers

Slow Church (IVP, 2014) has struck a chord among Christians hungry for new ways of thinking about the Church. Calling for smaller, more local expressions of faith, the book moves away from church growth and toward the model of its subtitle: “cultivating community in the patient way of Jesus.” Authors Chris Smith, editor of Englewood Review of Books, and John Pattison, managing editor of Conspire Magazine, spoke with Ragan Sutterfield about Slow Church’s implications for how we see Christian community today.

What is Slow Church?

Chris: Slow Church comes from the language and philosophy of the Slow Food movement and the other slow movements that have followed in its wake. It is a reaction against the speed of culture and the homogenizing effect of globalization. We came to realize that the fast life and the homogenization of culture, the forces that are trying to make everything identical, were very much at work in our churches. The goal of the Slow Church project is to imagine a church that is able to resist the temptations of the fast life.

One of the ways you approach your project is by reframing the Slow Food ideal of “good, clean, and fair” as “ecology, ethics, and economy.” What do those three things mean in the context of the Church?

John: The ethics of Slow Church is the challenge to be the faithful embodiment of Christ in our particular neighborhoods. By ecology we mean that our call to follow Christ has to be understood within God’s overall mission of reconciling all things. The economy of Slow Church is God’s abundant provision for that reconciling work. The book ends with a chapter on dinner-table conversation as a model for the Church where we bring those three elements together.

The closest churches to our homes often don’t align with our theological commitments. Do you have any guidance on how to navigate the competing goods of theological conviction and avoiding the tendency to be a church consumer?

Chris: Obviously I don’t want to throw out the theological commitments someone might have, but even in small towns there are typically several options. I think one way forward might be to simply pick a radius and commit yourself to limiting your options to the churches in that radius. Then find a church that fits best with your theological commitments within that radius. Look for things like community and life in the church that go beyond the Sunday-morning service.

How does Slow Church address the tension of the particular and universal in the local church and the worldwide body of Christ?

Chris: In some senses it’s about conversation. A lot of our answer to any question about Slow Church is “conversation.” I’m sort of joking, but also not. We think that the local church is the primary context of embodying the faith, but we have respect for the history and tradition of larger communions. Just because we’re focusing on the local and particular, we are not discarding the global community. Conversation is how we navigate that question of how we can be the Church in this particular place but also recognize that we have a history that we bring with us to this place. Conversation is how we can explore the dynamics of those identities.

Why is this practice, and its accompanying virtues like patience, so critical to the idea of Slow Church?

Chris: We have a practice of conversation at my church, Englewood Christian Church, that we have been working at for over 15 years in which we get together on Sunday nights and have conversation together. It was rough and volatile for the first few years of the conversation, but what we’ve learned in the continuing of the conversation is that the practice of forcing ourselves to talk to one another spills out into other parts of our lives in the businesses and ministries that we share throughout the week in our neighborhood. We found that through the practice of conversation we came to trust one another and know one another, to know and be known by one another.

That trust enabled us to work together even when we didn’t agree about how things should be done or what should be done. Continuing to practice conversation together has helped us seek the way of Jesus together and learn what faithfulness looks like among these people God has gathered here. I think it’s fascinating that Paul uses the metaphor of the human body in 1 Corinthians, and if we look at how our bodies work it is really a conversation that is carried on through all the parts of our body. Oftentimes when we are in pain it isn’t a unidirectional phenomenon, but also a communication that reverberates throughout the body. Thinking about it in these terms has been helpful for us.

John: One of the reasons this is so important is that we see fragmentation all around us — in our nation, our denominations, our families. Just by eating together and talking together the Church can bear witness to the possibility that diverse and peaceable conversation is possible in a culture as fragmented as ours. Fred Rogers [of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood] is one of our heroes, and in one of his last books he talks about how it is at the table that children learn to have conversations. We draw from that the idea that the table is a kind of school of conversation for the Church — it is at the table that we learn the language and habits of the family.

What would be the Slow Church response to the mainline’s concern about declining numbers?

Chris: This is a question we’ve gotten quite a bit. A large part of the question comes down to economics and the kind of economic imagination that we have. A lot of the pressure that churches feel is whether we can sustain the way things have been done in terms of staff and building and the kinds of things we have come to expect as Church. We need to call all of those things into question and realize that our life together goes much deeper than the economic relationships to which we’ve become accustomed.

The healthiest churches are the ones that can use their imaginations to grapple with the resources God has provided them, whether that is human resources with staff or laity or something like land resources. I know one church in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is ripping out its parking lot to build a low-income residential complex there that will provide jobs and affordable housing in one of the world’s most expensive cities. That’s the kind of imagination we need to have.

John: I recognize and appreciate what a fix denominational churches are in because they are being asked by their denomination to show success by laying out numbers. Numbers can be put on a spreadsheet and it doesn’t require interpretation. But because churches are changing, slowing down and getting smaller are not bad things. We need new metrics of success. I’m not a denominational leader, but when I look at Scripture the emphasis is far less on numbers and far more on faithfulness. The two churches that get the highest praise in the Book of Revelation are described as poor and having no influence, so I think it will be a work of the imagination to demonstrate new ways of evaluating success. I like the idea of moving from numbers to storytelling. I would like to see churches designating certain members as the church’s memory-keeper and keep the record of God’s faithfulness in the church. Some churches are even using All Saints’ Day as a time to do that work.

You are both laypeople. What does your vision bring to the subject of how we do church?

John: A lot of the early energy for Slow Food didn’t come from farmers; it was started by eaters who were tired of consuming industrialized food. We think it is appropriate that the early energy for Slow Church comes not from pastors or academic theologians but from laypeople who are longing for something more than a consumerist experience of church. Chris and I are amateurs in the older sense of that word, which means “lover,” and is meant to describe someone who does something just for the love of it. We were primarily motivated to write this book out of a love for the Church.

Ragan Sutterfield, a student at Virginia Theological Seminary, is author of Cultivating Reality (Cascade) and This Is My Body (Convergent).

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